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Pacific Coast League Top 20 Prospects

By Jim Callis
September 27, 2002

The Triple-A Pacific Coast League was the source of many an interesting debate this summer.

Who had the most upside in the league's two deepest pitching rotations, Fresno (Kurt Ainsworth vs. Jesse Foppert vs. Jerome Williams) and Oklahoma (Joaquin Benoit vs. Colby Lewis vs. Aaron Myette)?

Which Edmonton slugger has more talent, Michael Cuddyer or Michael Restovich? How about between failed Rookie of the Year candidates and possible second basemen Hank Blalock and Sean Burroughs?

Who's most likely to succeed among the league's top first basemen, Hee Seop Choi, Travis Hafner and Lyle Overbay? Who's the best of the two feisty second basemen every manager adored, Bobby Hill and Joey Thurston? Of the two youngsters in the Colorado Springs rotation, friendly rivals Aaron Cook and Jason Young?

Read on, and we'll tell you.

foppert
Jesse Foppert
Photo: Rudy Jasienski
1. Jesse Foppert, rhp, Fresno Grizzlies (Giants)
The question isn't how Foppert became the minors' best mound prospect two years after becoming a full-time pitcher. That answer is apparent to everyone who saw him pitch this year. But how did this guy last 74 picks in the 2000 draft?

Foppert reached Triple-A 12 months after signing and led the minors with 11.7 strikeouts per nine innings in his first full season. He got whiffs with three pitches: a mid-90s fastball that can reach 97 mph, a quick slider that runs down and in on righthanders, and a splitter that hitters couldn't help but chase out of the strike zone.

"He misses bats," an American League scout said. "Guys swing through his fastball and don't touch it."

Extremely athletic, Foppert has smooth mechanics to go with outstanding mound presence. He sharpened his slider in Fresno but still can improve his secondary pitches, which also include a changeup. He'll also need to refine his command and get stronger after averaging less than six innings per start and fading in August.

2. Michael Cuddyer, of, Edmonton Trappers (Twins)
Cuddyer was fully qualified to spend 2002 with the AL Central champion Twins. But he had an option and Bobby Kielty and Dustan Mohr were hot for most of the summer, so Cuddyer was relegated to Edmonton.

Instead of sulking, he established himself as the best hitter in the PCL. He's going to produce for average and power and is a better all-around hitter than Restovich. Trappers manager John Russell said the difference between the two is that Cuddyer's swing and approach are more fine-tuned, while Restovich had to make adjustments this year.

"Cuddyer is the best player in the league for me," Colorado Springs manager Chris Cron said. "I love the way he swings the bat. He never gives in. Even if you get two strikes on him, he could still burn you. He was a very good third baseman and he looked good in the outfield."

In his first year as a full-time outfielder, Cuddyer worked hard on his defense. He has the arm strength for right field.

3. Hank Blalock, 3b, Oklahoma RedHawks (Rangers)
Initially ticketed for Triple-A, Blalock made the Rangers after a hot spring training. Then adversity struck, as he hit .200 to prompt a May demotion. A month later, doctors found bone chips in his elbow.

The injury may require surgery and made it difficult for Blalock to get extension on pitches on the inner half. Add orders from the Texas brass to take more pitches, and he went through a nearly two-month homer drought. He finally got untracked in the season's final weeks, again looking like the hitter who terrorized pitchers throughout 2001.

A line-drive machine, he should contend for batting titles while hitting at least 20-25 homers annually. "He looks like he can hit with his eyes closed," Iowa manager Pat Listach said after Blalock hit .444 in eight games against his club.

A steady third baseman, Blalock logged four games at second base. The consensus is that if he moves to a different position to accommodate fellow Texas farmhand Mark Teixeira, Blalock is more likely to wind up in left field.

4. John Lackey, rhp, Salt Lake Stingers (Angels)
No PCL player had more impact on the major league pennant races than Lackey. He went 8-4, 3.57 in his first 17 starts for the Angels, who wouldn't have reached the playoffs without him.

Lackey combines stuff, command and intelligence. He gets a lot of movement on a low-90s fastball he can spot on either side of the plate. His hard slider and changeup are solid pitches, and he has smoothed out his delivery.

"He was the best pitcher I had seen this year to that point," said a National League scout who saw him blank Tucson for seven innings in mid-June. "He was throwing in the mid-90s at times. He breaks speeds off his slider and that's very imaginative. He has a good idea, running pitches up and in and down and away. He throws a lot of low-and-outside first strikes, which is very effective because good hitters will take that pitch."

Lackey is also a workhorse. He topped 200 innings this year after exceeding 180 in each of the previous two seasons.

5. Michael Restovich, of, Edmonton Trappers (Twins)
While the consensus ranked Cuddyer slightly ahead of him, Restovich had plenty of supporters. Cuddyer is a safer pick, but Restovich has more power and is more athletic. Scouts compared him to Adam Dunn and Tim Salmon.

As Russell mentioned, Restovich is still learning about his stroke and plate discipline. He strikes out too much and probably won't hit for average right away in the majors. His swing is fine but he must recognize offspeed pitches better.

Like Cuddyer, Restovich plays hard and is a competent corner outfielder. He'll also have to be patient while waiting for a big league opening to develop.

6. Sean Burroughs, 2b/3b, Portland Beavers (Padres)
No. 1 on this list a year ago, Burroughs was handed San Diego's third-base job and couldn't hold it. He hit .221 before going on the disabled list at the end of May with a sprained shoulder, and was sent to Portland when he healed six weeks later.

Burroughs hit like he always has in the minors, stroking line drives all over the field and controlling the strike zone. But he didn't erase the questions about his long-term power by homering just twice in 50 games. One scout said Burroughs looked like he was trying to create power and hurt his swing.

Playing second base for the first time as a pro, Burroughs didn't embarrass himself but looked a little stiff and lacked range. One manager was blunt when assessing Blalock or Burroughs at second: "If they play second base in the big leagues, then baseball has gone to hell. It's slow-pitch softball then."

7. Colby Lewis, rhp, Oklahoma RedHawks (Rangers)
Blalock breaking camp with the Rangers wasn't unexpected, but Lewis doing so was a surprise. He lasted two weeks in the Texas bullpen before bringing his power stuff to the Oklahoma rotation.

Lewis might have a more lively arm than Foppert and Lackey, but he lacks their feel for pitching. He maintains the mid-90s velocity on his fastball throughout a game, and he has a power curveball. His stuff is so heavy that batters have trouble driving it in the air.

He's still trying to refine his changeup, which he seldom uses. Lewis made significant strides with his command in 2002, though it deserted him during his three big league stints.

8. Hee Seop Choi, 1b, Iowa Cubs
Hampered a year ago by a painful injury to his right hand, Choi returned to Iowa and was much more effective. He boosted his average 58 points, showed as much raw pop as anyone and led the league with 95 walks.

"He has unbelievable power," said Cron, who managed him in the Arizona Fall League. "He can look so silly on the same pitch twice in a row, then the third time he'll hit it nine miles. He can do that with any pitch. There's talent oozing out of all parts of his body. It's just a matter of time."

His time has come, as the Cubs are going to let Fred McGriff walk as a free agent. Choi has learned to solve lefthanders and has become a solid first baseman, but several observers questioned whether he can handle inside heat. Two scouts say his uppercut stroke makes that difficult and wonder if he's more of a mistake hitter.

9. Bobby Hill, 2b, Iowa Cubs
Managers couldn't discuss Hill without using words like scrappy, gamer and competitive. They said the same things about Thurston, and the difference between the two players is that Hill is more gifted with tools.

A switch-hitter, Hill is suited to bat leadoff because he hits line drives, draws walks and can swipe bases (his 85 percent rate of success led the PCL). He was more impatient than usual in two stints with the Cubs, perhaps because he tried to prove too much. Hill outplayed Delino DeShields for the second-base job in spring training, yet still was sent to Iowa.

Considered the best defensive second baseman in the league, Hill has learned the double-play pivot after moving from shortstop. His main focus now is on improving his lateral quickness.

10. Aaron Cook, rhp, Colorado Springs Sky Sox (Rockies)
Cook may be the ideal Coors Field pitcher. Who better to keep the ball in the park at high altitude than someone with a 95-96 mph fastball with unbelievable sink? "He has about as good a movement as anyone I've seen," the AL scout said.

Compared to his good friend and rival Young, Cook comes out ahead in terms of velocity and command. His heat stays in the mid-90s throughout a game, and he can locate both his fastball and plus slider wherever he wants. Young has a wider array of pitches, as Cook still is trying to master a changeup.

Outside of Lackey, Cook enjoyed more big league success in 2002 than anyone else in the top 10. The puzzling thing, however, is why he doesn't get more strikeouts (104 in his first 195 innings this year).

11. Travis Hafner, 1b, Oklahoma RedHawks (Rangers)
Unlike the players ahead of him on this list, Hafner didn’t come to the PCL with a blue-chip prospect pedigree. He already has spent five years in the minors and missed much of 2001 with a wrist injury. There were doubts about his true hitting ability and he was overshadowed in a Texas system deep in hitters such as Hank Blalock, Mark Teixeira, Ryan Ludwick and Kevin Mench.

But Hafner isn’t anonymous any more. He may be 25 and he may never be more than an adequate first baseman, but Hafner is a legitimate slugger. He made a run at the PCL batting title, led the minors in on-base percentage (.463) and walked more than he struck out.

Hafner is a more pure hitter than Choi, using the whole field and faring better against quality pitching, but has slightly less power. The AL scout thinks Hafner’s home run production will continue to increase.

"He’s an animal," the scout said. "He had the best strike-zone judgment I saw all year. He stays inside the ball well, and his pull power will come."

12. Francisco Rodriguez, rhp, Salt Lake Stingers (Angels)
After signing for $900,000 out of Venezuela, Rodriguez was at least slightly disappointing in his first three seasons. If he wasn’t nagged by injuries, he was immature and inconsistent. Then he moved to the bullpen this year in Double-A and took off.

Rodriguez has two closer-quality pitches, a fastball that sits at 93-94 mph and reaches 97, and a hard slider. His lack of a changeup is no longer a handicap. He has calmed his delivery, enabling him to throw more strikes.

He sometimes overthrows and leaves his fastball straight and up in the strike zone, and he doesn’t always command his slider. But that didn’t stop him from contributing to the Angels in September, when he didn’t allow a run in his first four major league appearances, striking out eight of the 14 batters he faced.

"He has really good stuff, very electric. I manage the game to have the lead before he can come in," Listach said. "You have to put four or five good at-bats in a row on him to score a run."

13. Kurt Ainsworth, rhp, Fresno Grizzlies (Giants)
While Foppert clearly was the top choice among Grizzlies pitchers, there was a close split on whether Ainsworth or Williams was second-best. Ainsworth, who won both his starts for the 2000 U.S. Olympic team, earned the edge because his stuff and competitiveness are slightly better.

He went 1-1, 1.69 in three April starts for the Giants but was sent to Fresno when Jason Schmidt came off the disabled list. Ainsworth, who missed a month with a pulled lat muscle in his back, showed five solid pitches when healthy. His 88-90 mph sinker, 92-94 mph four-seam fastball, slider, curveball and changeup all can be plus offerings at times.

Ainsworth knows how to set up hitters. Now he just needs to trust his stuff. He tries to make perfect pitches and nibbles more than he should. With his repertoire, he doesn’t have to be so fine.

14. Dennis Tankersley, rhp, Portland Beavers (Padres)
In 2001, Tankersley had the best season of any minor league pitcher not named Josh Beckett. He started well this year in Double-A, then lost his confidence when he got hammered in the majors. He regrouped only partially when demoted to Portland.

Tankersley slider was still a strikeout pitch, and PCL managers rated it the best breaking ball in the league. But he didn’t command his low-90s fastball, which lacked life, and he still doesn’t have much of an offspeed pitch.

If he can get back to where he was a year ago, Tankersley still can be a successful big league starter, but Jake Peavy and Oliver Perez clearly have passed him in San Diego’s plans. The AL scout thinks Tankersley has a lot of effort in his delivery and would be better suited for relief. He didn’t fare much better in that role when he got a second chance with San Diego.

15. Lyle Overbay, 1b, Tucson Sidewinders (Diamondbacks)
Overbay has hit .345 since signing as an 18th-round pick in 1999. He’s a smart hitter who hits all kinds of pitching, effortlessly stroking line drives and using the opposite field well. Managers put him in a similar class with Blalock and Burroughs and thought his 6-foot-2, 215-pound frame eventually would generate more than doubles power.

Scouts weren’t as convinced, however. They don’t think he makes enough effort to go for home runs, and he doesn’t draw walks like Choi and Hafner do. The scouts aren’t as sold on the constant Overbay-Mark Grace comparisons, either, because he doesn’t have that kind of glove.

"I’d like to see him hit 30-40 home runs," the NL scout said. "He gives up too much power at times. I’m not convinced. He can be a complementary player, but I’m not sure he’s a legitimate run producer."

16. Jerome Williams, rhp, Fresno Grizzlies (Giants)
Williams is both precocious and enigmatic. He pitched well in the PCL at age 20, easily the youngest regular starting pitcher in the league. But observers continue to wonder how someone with the athleticism of a young Dwight Gooden doesn’t consistently show better stuff and focus.

Williams usually pitches at 90-92 mph. There’s more velocity in him, but he just doesn’t bust it loose. His best pitch is his changeup, but his slider and curveball are ordinary. His command is good, not great.

While Williams did improve in terms of pitching inside, he should blow hitters away more often than he does. Some managers and scouts liked him better than Ainsworth, and he did post a 1.83 ERA in his final eight starts.

17. Angel Berroa, ss, Omaha Royals
Speaking of enigmas, no player had a more puzzling season than Berroa, who probably just wants to forget 2002 altogether. He twisted his right knee in April, requiring arthroscopic surgery that cost him two months. Shortly after he returned, his age was revealed to be 24 rather than 22, tarnishing his prospect status.

After leading all minor league shortstops with 60 extra-base hits last year, Berroa was one of the worst hitters in the PCL. He also made 16 errors in 77 games and didn’t snap out of it when the Royals promoted him in September.

None of that stopped the managers from rating Berroa as the league’s best defensive shortstop, best infield arm and most exciting player. His hands, arm and action are all assets at the position. He has bat speed and some pop, but he needs to shorten his swing and cut down on his aggressiveness (his 84-15 strikeout-walk ratio was the fourth-worst in the PCL).

"He’s not a good baseball player yet," the AL scout said, "but he’s tooled up."

18. Jason Young, rhp, Colorado Springs Sky Sox (Rockies)
Young doesn’t have a signature pitch like Cook’s sinker, but he has more pitches he can rely on than his teammate and friend. His 92-93 mph fastball, slurvy breaking ball and changeup all are big league pitches. Most observers thought his changeup was the best of the three.

Young is an athletic 6-foot-5 and 205 pounds, but he needs to throw on a better downward plane. He gets more movement on his fastball and is less vulnerable to longballs when he does. He also could use more deception, as hitters get a good look at Young’s pitches.

19. Brad Lidge, rhp, New Orleans Zephyrs (Astros)
Lidge’s biggest accomplishment was simply staying healthy for the first time since he was drafted 17th overall in 1998. Between Double-A, Triple-A and the majors, he more than tripled his previous career high of 42 innings.

The Astros were resigned to the fact that Lidge wasn’t durable enough to remain a starter, so they planned on putting him in relief at New Orleans. After they put him in the Zephyrs rotation in late May, he held up all season.

Lidge’s big league destination still looks like the bullpen. Houston has several young starters, and relieving would allow him to focus on carving up hitters with one of the best sliders in the minors and a low-90s fastball. He’ll reach 95-96 mph more often in a shorter role, and his weaknesses (fastball command, changeup consistency) won’t be as magnified.

20. Joey Thurston, 2b, Las Vegas 51s (Dodgers)
The manager-scout dichotomy with Thurston was as great as it was with Overbay. Thurston led the minors in hits and total bases (297), and topped the PCL in runs (106), yet managers raved about his intangibles the most. He plays well beyond his tools, which is why they loved him.

But scouts couldn’t look away from those tools. He steals bases, yet he has fringe average speed. He makes contact and produced for Las Vegas, yet he has a funky swing and rarely walks, so he may have to hit at the bottom of the order. He has a below-average arm and his hands aren’t the softest at second base.

While he could offer the Dodgers more than incumbent second baseman Mark Grudzielanek, the scouts see Thurston’s true worth as a premium utilityman. Players like Craig Counsell, David Eckstein and Mark Ellis have overcome that tag, and Thurston has similar makeup.

Top 10 prospects five years ago
* has reached majors

1. *Paul Konerko, 3b, Albuquerque (Dodgers)
2. *Jose Cruz Jr., of, Tacoma (Mariners)
3. *Neifi Perez, ss, Colorado Springs (Rockies)
4. *Travis Lee, 1b, Tucson (Diamondbacks)
5. *Todd Helton, 1b, Colo. Springs (Rockies)
6. *Todd Greene, c, Vancouver (Angels)
7. *Todd Walker, 3b, Salt Lake (Twins)
8. *Karim Garcia, of, Albuquerque (Dodgers)
9. *Derrek Lee, 1b, Las Vegas (Padres)
10. *Jacob Cruz, of, Phoenix (Giants)

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